Bringing coal workers into the clean energy age

Guest Author

As increasing attention is focused on transitioning our energy systems, we in the United States can’t forget the special debt owed to the people of Appalachia, the Mountain West and other U.S. coal-producing regions.

Coal miners, their families and communities have worked tirelessly for two centuries to heat our homes and power America’s growth. Coal mined in West Virginia, Wyoming and other states provided the low-cost, round-the-clock energy that fueled the industrial revolution, electrified America and launched the computer age.

Times change. Similar to how the internal combustion engine overtook the steam engine, renewable energy is now less expensive than even the cheapest fossil fuels to generate electricity. Concerns about climate change are driving people from across the political spectrum to prioritize non-emitting energy sources over fossil fuels.

Because solar and wind power don’t always generate electricity, American innovators such as my team at Malta have developed new technologies to efficiently store electricity for days. This allows renewable energy to be available on demand. For the first time in history, a 100% carbon-free electricity grid is achievable.

The clean energy transition is challenging for all states, but doubly so for coal states like West Virginia and Wyoming, the two biggest coal-producing states in the nation. When a coal-fired power plant closes, it displaces workers and disrupts family life. In addition, the lost tax revenue can take a toll on an entire community.

Facing these dynamics, some traditional coal states are revising laws and regulations to diversify their economies. They’re deploying more carbon-free energy to attract businesses that want clean energy. They’re doing what they can to ensure their citizens are not left behind.

For example, West Virginia recently lifted a ban on nuclear energy production, laying the groundwork for advanced nuclear power plants. Today, the state has eight wind farms generating more than 857 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Three new hydropower plants are in the works, which will add to the existing 12 that generate more than 260 MW of clean electricity. The state’s first solar farm—to be built on a former coal mine—is slated to come online as soon as next year.

Companies like Malta are helping, too. We are in the final phase of a U.S. Department of Energy-funded study of how to repurpose retiring coal plants and save jobs using our energy storage technology.

Malta’s technology uses components from the power sector and relies on the same skillsets and trades that coal plants use today. Coal plant workforces can build, operate and maintain a Malta clean power plant with only minimal retraining required. Keeping the worksite operating preserves jobs and the local tax base, saving whole communities.

Malta’s plant also produces clean heat when it re-generates stored electricity that can be used to attract new businesses to the community. It can dry timber and agricultural products, grow crops in greenhouses or be used for district heating, which can warm clusters of buildings such as college campuses, all while dramatically reducing facilities’ carbon footprints.

Last year, Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure law, which includes funding to attract new industries and create new jobs where coal mines and coal-fired power plants have closed. This law funds demonstrations of new, clean energy technologies, including long-duration energy storage, which can facilitate more clean energy without sacrificing the reliability and resiliency of the electricity grid. These new technologies are essential to a carbon-free economy, and they can ease the transition for coal communities.

We can do more. Legislation is pending before Congress that would reduce the cost of new energy-storage technologies to ratepayers. This would make it easier for ratepayers to benefit from clean technology and create new jobs in states like West Virginia and Wyoming. It would reduce the cost of technology like Malta’s for utilities, making it easier for them to repurpose retiring fossil-fuel-powered energy plants.

To ensure we continue the energy transition, we must remember the workers, communities and states that got us to where we are today. We have a civic duty to honor their contributions to society and ensure they too have a stake in America’s clean energy future.

Editor’s note: Malta’s investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which is affiliated with the broader Breakthrough Energy network that supports Cipher.